The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn, published by Simon & Schuster, 531 pp, hardback $28.00
“Traditionally, demagogues succeed by appealing to the worst traits in others … Jim Jones attracted followers by appealing to the best in their nature, a desire for everyone to share equally.” – The Road to Jonestown
“Jim Jones and Peoples Temple was never a freak show,” said author Jeff Guinn to a group of mostly younger readers at the San Antonio Book Festival. “Today we think of this lunatic leader and a bunch of mindless people who followed him to their doom, and nothing could be further from the truth.” Guinn wanted his book to do two things, he continued: to show how the 1950s and 60s could produce someone like Jim Jones in the 1970s; and to illuminate the lives of his followers, many of whom were trying to bring forth a better world.
The author of the latest book focusing on Jim Jones also writes about other American figures who violently altered American culture, most recently in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Previous works have focused on Bonnie and Clyde and The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West.
Guinn’s background is important because it shapes how he approaches the story of Jones and Peoples Temple. He writes within the conventions of investigative journalism, and this volume will remind Jonestown scholars of Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman, first published in 1982, only four years after Jonestown.
Guinn’s tone makes the story readable and sometimes sensational, though it is, admittedly, difficult to avoid sounding melodramatic or even lurid when chronicling Jones’ story, which he does from birth to death in extensive detail. Guinn seems to have talked to anyone left alive from the early days in Indiana, giving us details of the boy Jones was, his absent but imposing, unstable mother, and his alienation from the very large Jones family into which he was born.
Readers will be pleased to learn much more about Marceline Baldwin Jones than has previously been disclosed. Marceline appears as a vital, vibrant woman on her own who takes quite some time to fade into the shadows cast by her more charismatic husband. The book casts the older Marceline as a martyr – Guinn believes she was trying to change the course of the last day at the compound, and he discloses her fealty to her children over and above her own happiness. He also recounts a story where Marceline might have absconded from Jones in the Northern California years with a man who loved her. Jones made her choose between her children and her lover; she chose the former.
Jim Jones Jr. has said of the book, “The level of research and detail in The Road to Jonestown is the best ever.” And the words of New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin on Guinn’s Manson biography might well be applied to the new book on Jones: a “brawny, deep-digging biography that’s much more riveting than might be expected.”
The photographs included in the volume offer some of the usual Jonestown stock, but more impressive are those shots from the early days: a baptism in Lynn, Indiana, featuring Myrtle Kennedy, whom Jones described as a “second mother”; an angelic-looking Marceline Baldwin “shortly before she met Jim Jones”; and a very early photo of the “rainbow family,” including Suzanne, Jim Jr., Stephan and Lew. Agnes, their first adopted child, is absent from the photograph, and Guinn honors her memory by pointing out her thorny path in the supposedly harmonious world of the Joneses.
“I have talked to old people in Indianapolis who said their lives would have been worthless without Jim Jones,” Guinn told his San Antonio audience. Those people said it didn’t matter what Jones did later. The author posits that had Jones died in a car crash in the 60s or early 70s, he would have been remembered as an early Civil Rights hero for integrating a deeply segregated city, fifteen years before the Civil Rights Act made it mandatory to do so.
Another reviewer, Kevin Hamilton of the Seattle Times, said “Guinn is a master storyteller with a unique expertise in murderous psychotics. The book reads like a thriller, each page forcing your attention to the next as the Peoples Temple slowly slides from groundbreaking progressivism toward madness. “ Hamilton’s assessment rings true. One keeps reading until the dire end, with foreboding and the unlovely eagerness of a gawker at a car wreck.
(Annie Dawid is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her two literary works in this edition are Long Before Jonestown: Indianapolis, 1956 and Jonestown, Japantown. Her other book review is Jonestown Plays Minor Role in Novel. Her complete collection of articles for this site may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)